The Handmaid’s Tale could never be called upbeat, but it goes to a truly dark place in the episode “Other Women.” There was heart-wrenching despair as June (Elisabeth Moss) came so close to escaping Gilead at the end of the previous episode, but there is absolute devastation as she is forced to slip back into old habits. Literally.
Offred has always been a name that has been just that-a word forced on June that she must also adopt to survive. Now Offred threatens to become a personality that subsumes June completely. It’s a terrifying process kickstarted by none other than Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), once again serving up her own twisted brand of gospel. As she tells June, she’s trying to save a fallen woman and give her the best life she can, and that means Offred redeeming June rather than having to pay for her crimes.
It’s another reminder that Gilead’s true power is not the sound and fury of its violence, which is always ready and eager to spring into action against any sign of disharmony. It’s the silence. How it muzzles every citizen, be they young, old, man, or woman, and gets them to fall in line. Neatly. Whether they’re true believers or not. Anyone who isn’t either becomes one or gives their best imitation, lest their silence become truly final.
For June, it’s not just that she must learn to conform all over again after having a brief taste of freedom. It’s that the small comforts which made her life bearable have been erased. The carving in her closet has been painted over. Nick (Max Minghella) is barely able to speak to her. The resistance has gone silent. Her best instincts are used against her as learns how others have suffered for her actions. The man who helped her has been hung on the Wall. His wife has been forced to become a Handmaid, and Ofglen (Tattiawna Jones) has had her tongue ripped out. Not to mention the baby shower from hell, where all the Wives get together to celebrate the impending birth of their stolen children.
With all this guilt, it makes sense for June contemplate the decision that led her to her current path, that is, getting involved with Luke (O-T Fagbenle). His ex-wife was never seen in the book, and showing her now would be bold if it wasn’t so ill-timed. The problem is, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t able to examine how complex love and can be, and how it’s often deeply-rooted in selfishness. When another person inspires such passion in us, what does that mean for those around us? So when Luke’s ex Annie (Kelly Jenrette) asked June to back off so she and Luke could work on her marriage, June refused. Yes, Annie still loved Luke after he left her for another woman. But June loved him too much too give him up, especially since he and his wife had been separated for three months. And they built a very good life, filled with love and family. Was June right? Who can say.
But how dare The Handmaid’s Tale equate Annie’s situation to June’s present one. Yes, Luke and June’s love had a cost in Annie’s unhapiness. But it doesn’t compare to the sheer monstrosity of Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena’s (Yvonne Strahovski) actions. They aren’t just building their happiness off of June’s pain, they are building it on her enslavement and rape, aided and abetted by an entire system they had an active hand in creating. It is inevitable that June’s guilt will lead her to see a parallel. But how dare the show follow her lead and equate that to the private actions of two people who had genuine love for each other.
It’s even more insulting because the rest of the episode is so damn well done, and Elisabeth Moss conveys it to us perfectly. June’s mental break isn’t just due to her past deeds, it’s that the punishment for them are suffered by others, be they Annie, Handmaids, or Econopeople. Plus, there’s always the threat of execution. By the end, she has become broken, compliant. Offred. Her blank look while she repeats to herself, “We’ve been sent good weather” is more terrifying than anything else the show has given us. Then again, the scene at night when Serena lies down next to June and murmurs, “Mama loves you” to June’s unborn child comes close. It makes the rest of The Handmaid’s Tale look like The Hallmark Channel.